If, as Dave Hickey once wrote, real art is “an accumulation of small, fragile, social occasions,” then the real art world can be found in quainter, smaller places than the mega-galleries of Chelsea — say, a living room. Say, your living room.
In a two-story house on Maple Ave. in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens sub-neighborhood of Flatbush, Brooklyn, writer and producer Arabella von Arx has turned her top floor into a modest gallery and art lending library. Von Arx founded Gallery Particulier last year with help from a crowdfunding campaign and grant support. Its aim is to “sidestep the art institutional system.” For just a safety deposit (between $10 and $180), anyone can borrow art on view at the Gallery for three to six months at a time.
Von Arx drew inspiration from other DIY concepts, including Meg Duguid’s ‘Clutch Gallery,’ an exhibition inside a wooden purse, and Sabina Ott’s project ‘Terrain,’ in which the artist invited others to use her front yard in Illinois to host their own exhibitions. The website for ‘Terrain,’ which has since grown into a biennial event and residency, describes its mission as “an act of radical decentralization, taking art from privileged urban centers and bringing it into everyday spaces.” Gallery Particulier’s unofficial motto covers similar territory: “Everyone can be a gallerist,” its website boasts. Eat your heart out, David Zwirner.
Gallery Particulier’s unofficial motto covers similar territory: “Everyone can be a gallerist,” its website boasts. Eat your heart out, David Zwirner.
Particulier, meaning “private” or “individual,” is in this case a play on the French “hotel particulier” (private mansion) and “cabinet particulier” (private room in a restaurant). It suggests an intimate experience.
“I get great enjoyment out of having real artworks around,” von Arx said one afternoon, sitting on the couch in the gallery space. An oil painting by Grace Nkem, done on a tabletop hockey gameboard, hung on the wall above her, one of the Nigerian-Russian artist’s surrealist works in which seemingly disparate, though symbolically connected, images float on a canvas like a Pinterest board inspired by Dali.
Nkem is inspired by the landscape of the internet, according to her artist’s bio, wherein “all images seem to exist at once.” Von Arx echoed that sentiment. “We live in a world where we actually have a lot of images on the screen and people often have prints in their house,” she said. By comparison, she said, “having a real artwork in your home, it’s a connection between one person and one person, and that’s so rare in a world where everything’s mass.”
Other art crawled around the apartment cum gallery, opposite a refrigerator, in the hallway and following the upward slant of the staircase. A few clay heads in muted tones stared unblinkingly at the ceiling from their resting place under a window. Looking at Nkem’s paintings, I was reminded of the obvious: original art is the result of hands at work. Brushstrokes, lumpy textures, conscientious choices and unintended miracles are all remnants of creation that machines can’t replicate — at least not authentically.
“We live in a world where we actually have a lot of images on the screen and people often have prints in their house,” she said. By comparison, she said, “having a real artwork in your home, it’s a connection between one person and one person, and that’s so rare in a world where everything’s mass.”
There is the work in the gallery itself, and then there is the mission of the gallery, which requires a larger look at the Art World. I don’t claim to be intimately familiar, and according to the industry insiders in Kelcey Edwards’ relevant 2021 documentary The Art of Making It, few are.
“Being in the art world is like being Amish,” said L.A.-based curator of contemporary art Helen Molesworth. “It is like being in a small, sectarian cult… We talk in code, we dress a certain way, we’re very identifiable to one another, but we are not an open field.”
The industry as described in Edwards’ film is something parasitic. “We are an elitist apparatus connected to the ultra-rich,” admits Pace Gallery’s CEO; an apparatus whose sustaining armature is top-dollar MFA programs, “mega-galleries,” high net-worth collectors and museums, the boards of which often include those same gallerists and collectors.
This parasite finds its meatiest host in New York City. Fine art sales in New York accounted for nearly 90 percent of total U.S. fine art auction sales pre-pandemic, according to Artory. It is here, at Christie’s, that the auction house broke into applause when Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ sold, from one billionaire to another, for $450.3 million in 2017.
Some artists who have gone out in search of a new world have not had to travel very far away from Manhattan hot spots to find more DIY scenes.
“Going to school in Chelsea, in the heart of all that felt very constricting, like, ‘this is the only art world that there is; if you’re an artist you have to exist in this space in order to be successful,’” said 25-year-old Matthew Perez, one of Gallery Particulier’s exhibiting artists who often paints portraits of himself or others, and who has been drawn to painting the human body in constricted places. “I guess ‘success’ in that sense, it just kind of perverted what art-making is to me.”
Gallery Particulier is rooted in PLG — the neighborhood where von Arx lives and one that she loves. Artists come from everywhere, but the gallery’s upcoming show will feature work by 17-year-old Sophia Gibbins, who lives nearby the gallery on Maple St.
The greater Flatbush area, also called “Little Caribbean,” is home to the “largest and most diverse Caribbean-American-Latinx community outside of the West Indies,” according to its official website. Von Arx points out statistics that show declining museum attendance among Americans and uneven access to art and cultural events in predominantly Black and brown communities, as well as low-income communities. By working with community organizations, hanging art in local stores, at nonprofit centers and at fashion shows, she’s hoping to bring the art to the people, rather than forcing the reverse.
The concept of fine art lending, though incipient, is thus disruptive in an industry that claims to encourage, yet too often sanitizes, disruptors. Other luxuries have been familiarly (if not always effectively) dismantled. Everyone can be a gallerist is not unlike the idea that everyone can have luxury clothing (The Real Real; Rent the Runway) or that everyone can have a private chef (Cozymeal).
It may not be fair to use the term “disrupted,” when Big Tech has exhausted it to the point of parody. (See Edward Norton’s self-sanctified disruptor speech in The Glass Onion, a film that ends, fittingly, with the destruction of the ‘Mona Lisa.’) Disruption, by that definition, is a business model. Disruption, in this case, is intentionally anti-capitalist. Hosts can choose to purchase art from the gallery, and von Arx said she intends to buy more of the work in the future, but an artist who participates in Gallery Particulier, like so many DIY initiatives, must be willing – at least for now – to go without the guarantee of compensation.
“The artists who think, OK, I’m going to be the next Chelsea gallery discovery, that’s not who’s working with us, and I’m glad.”
“The artists who think, OK, I’m going to be the next Chelsea gallery discovery, that’s not who’s working with us, and I’m glad,” von Arx said. When she brought a selection of prints to the Brooklyn High School of the Arts for kids to borrow, she initially asked that students pay a $10 fee if the pieces were not returned on time, but dispensed with the idea when she realized it deterred students from taking art home.
That vision has attracted supporters. “There’s nothing about it that feels like the stuffiness and exclusionary vibe of what I would consider the art world in New York,” said Louisa Higgins, who borrowed Lungisa Matubatuba’s ‘Don’t Be Stopped’ and one of A. Shawn McKinney’s ‘Cigar Ladies of Cuba’ from the gallery.
A recent poetry reading hosted at the gallery, which drew several people in via a sandwich board sign in the front lawn, featured cookies and foldout chairs, sing-alongs and a casual Q&A. This community — the one that gathers in a townhouse without the expectation of buying or selling — is excited about the possibility of authentic connection.
“I have a great time with people who just kind of, like, stumble in,” Perez said, “Who [aren’t] too invested in the art world necessarily.”
Monique Rickenbacker, a 23-year-old resident of Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, saw a flier for the gallery’s exhibit at Awesome Home, a home goods store on Flatbush Ave., while she was out running some errands.
She was drawn in by A. Shawn McKinney’s ‘Cigar Ladies of Cuba.’ One of the Cigar Ladies — boldly painted older women in flowered headpieces smoking cigars — looked just like her grandmother from Barbados. The show was set to begin in an hour. When Rickenbacker came face-to-face with the work and met the artist, “I just started crying, I felt so many goosebumps,” she said. She took the painting home.